The devout often cite ‘divine calling’ as their rationale for a pilgrimage. Photographers also have divine callings. This post is about mine.
I have wanted to photograph this fluffy colourful ball also known as the ‘Jewel of the Western Ghats’ for a long time now. It has been a pet peeve of mine that I hadn’t yet been able to make the time to see and shoot the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher for myself. Every picture I saw of the ODKF, as it is called, on social media this year only sought to annoy me even more. I wanted my lens to capture this psychedelic cotton candy delight too.
A few weeks ago, I saw a photograph my friend Ashish Patil posted and I snapped. I called him up and pumped him for all the information I needed to make my way to Chiplun. An hour later another wildlife photographer and friend Krishnan texted me “Chiplun karna hai?” Serendipity much?
I was asked to get in touch with a guy called Nandu. The ODKF go-to guy as Ashish called him. And if I wasn’t able to reach him (I wasn’t), I was to connect with Rahul Belsare in Pune (which I did). A round robin of calls later, our plans were set. I would take the scenic coastal route and drive down to Chiplun from Goa, while Krishnan would make his way there by train from Mumbai. We would shoot the birds on Monday and Tuesday. Weekdays are ideal. Not because the birds are choosy about when they’ll dazzle you – just that there are fewer photographers on weekdays. I couldn’t wait to set off. Do you remember being a kid the week leading up to Christmas? That.
The day finally arrived. I packed my gear and set off. I love long drives, and this one was particularly special. 70 kilometres later I entered the state of Maharashtra. It’s good to know bad roads aren’t only a Mumbai thing. Maharashtra is equal opportunity when it comes to the quality of their roads across the state. One particular stretch from Oros to Kankavli was horrible. But nature has a way of easing my woes, and though my bum bore the brunt of the bad roads, green foliage all through this Konkan stretch made my heart sing.
After I had covered 200 kilometres, I decided it was time for a pit stop. And yes, LUNCH. How could I avoid one of those roadside eateries serving mouth-watering Konkan cuisine? Not very familiar with this countryside, I decided I needed my buddy Google’s help. The most recommended joint, Kotre, was a good 20 kilometres away.
Google, you did not disappoint. Kotre has a charm unique to local eateries in the Western Ghats, quite like the dhabas in the North and the shacks in Goa. My host recommended the Special Chicken thali, and I have to say it was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. And I’m not just saying that because I was starving.
It was a generous portion with rice bhakri (flat bread), chicken curry, chicken sukka and rice. My sumptuous meal was washed down with sol kadi, a digestive made with coconut milk and served in a small bowl.
Sated, I resumed the last leg of my journey with a discernable bounce in my step. I was still a good 100 kilometres away, but it felt like nothing. As I approached Chiplun, I stopped to take photos of the gorgeous landscape. As the River Vashishti meandered along the valleys with the western ghats in the background thick clouds threatened a storm that never happened. My drive was completely dry with just a drizzle or two. Very unusual weather for this time of the year and especially in this part of the country.
Once I reached Chiplun, I navigated my way to Parshuram Ghat, at the top of which is the River View resort. My room overlooked the western ghats with the river Vashishti flowing at its foothills in the foreground. Tired as I was I had a quick shower and waited in my balcony in anticipation a gorgeous sunset. The hills and the river made a perfect foreground. But my odds with the sun are always bad. Thick, dark clouds gathered made their way into my frame and blocked out my sun. While the sun fought a valiant battle, the clouds won ultimately, and this photographer had to make do with a photograph of the view from his room.
I decided to go to bed early. I was on a pilgrimage after all. With this one thought, I set my alarm for 6 am and called it a day.
I spent an anxious night without much sleep. I checked out and proceeded to the railway station. Krishnan and his friends had arrived, and we set off to our rendezvous – a small village named Shirvali about 25 kilometres from Chiplun. All I had was the geolocation sent to me on WhatsApp. Without a network this was useless. If I ever meet the Airtel girl, man, she’s going to get a good piece of my mind!
We found our way to the rendezvous quite by chance. We enquired about our destination at a house which as it turned out belongs to Ram (Nandu’s cousin). This house also serves as the venue for all meals for Nandu’s photographer guests and the verandah is neatly laid out just like a restaurant.
We were welcomed by steaming hot Sabudana Khichadi and a cup of chai. After breakfast, we were guided to Nandu’s house. Nandu welcomed us in and took us to another outhouse still under construction. Rooms inside have a neat arrangement that allows you to photograph birds through neatly made openings in a green mesh. A perfect camouflage so that the birds are not disturbed. We set up our gear and waited patiently. Nandu advised us to maintain complete silence, talk in whispers only if necessary and to stay in one place. It felt like detention in school, but we all were too excited to be affected by this minor discomfort.
Twenty minutes passed, and a colourful ball exploded onto the branch outside the window. It took us more than a second to realise what this meant and get our act together.
A tiny, and gorgeous Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher had perched with prey in its beak. It didn’t seem at all inclined to devour it so it was most likely sustenance for its babies. During the next four hours, the male and the female kept alternating their sorties and perching on the same spot now and then. Sometimes at an interval of 20 minutes, sometimes much longer.
We were later told the nest with the chicks was just behind the outhouse. The parents would fly across the fields to the nearby stream, grab their prey and dart back to feed the chicks. The perch outside our window was their way station. Never more than 5 seconds and always with prey held firmly. The chicks were undoubtedly having an assorted meal as we were witness to the parents bringing skinks (a species of lizards), tadpoles, small crabs and even a cockroach. Just two sessions and my mission was accomplished.
We did break for lunch between sessions, a simple, traditional vegetarian meal of chapatis, usal, potato bhaaji, dal and chilli pickle with puran poli, After our second session, as the light faded, we decided to wind up.
I returned to Chiplun to rest for the night before starting off on my scenic drive back to Goa. But first, how could I not celebrate my successful pilgrimage, with, you got it, a hearty local meal? All roads led to Abhishek which serves local Malvani cuisine. I gorged on a chicken thali with vade.
All good things come to good pilgrims.
A bit about the bird
The Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (ODKF) is also known as the ‘Three-toed Kingfisher or Black-backed Kingfisher’. Endemic to the western ghats, it is all of 5 inches in size. It is a delightfully colourful bird and sports yellow underpants with bright bluish black upper pants. Its preferred habitat is shaded forests near river streams especially in the Konkan region of southwest India. It breeds at the onset of the southwest monsoon, and the incubation period of the eggs is about two weeks. Once they hatch, they are looked after and fed by their parents for the next 2-3 weeks. Once grown, they are trained to hunt for a couple of days before they fly away.
If you are a Kingfisher enthusiast and want to shoot the ODKF, you can get in touch with Nandu via Rahul Belsare’s Facebook.
A bit about the man
Nandu (Nishikant Tambe) is a die-hard conservationist in the true sense. Unlike photographers (like me) who venture into the wild on weekends and holidays, he lives here and tends to the forest and the wildlife. All the money he collects from visitors enthusiasts who come to photograph the ODKF goes towards funding his forest acquisition scheme. Sounds nefarious? Quite the opposite. Over the last few years, Nandu has acquired about 26 acres of forest that he protects, so the ODKF have a safe habitat to thrive. He also finds time to till his land and run his dairy farm. He is a very busy man who you can catch for the occasional chat before he disappears to tend to other guests or his work.
On one of these rare conversations, he told me about the genesis of his journey to becoming the conservationist he is today – the time he found some abandoned ODKF chicks. He tended to them and reared them for a few weeks, feeding them by hand and then helping them take off into the wild. This was four years ago. His path has taught him more about these birds than any formal education could offer.
While Nandu has set up four sites for photographers, he also has numerous other sites that are out of bounds for any visitor. He nurtures these sites very carefully and avoids any disturbance to the breeding birds. Conservation of wildlife and our forests is his main focus, and he takes this very seriously.